To gather the fragments: The social significance of food and drink in early Christian ritual meals

To gather the fragments: The social significance of food and drink in early Christian ritual meals

By Andrew Brian McGowan

PhD Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1996

Abstract: The history of the eucharistic meals of early Christianity has been seen largely in terms of certain formal elements derived from one or other model of practice attributed to Jesus and the early Church. Most historical accounts fail to take account of evidence suggesting diversity in various respects including the use of foods. Consideration of these events as meals, employing aspects of social theory and comparative method, rather than merely as sacramental acts, offers the possibility of further development both of the historical account and of interpretation.

In particular, foods can be understood as signs in a symbolic system. Communal meals involving the use of cheese, milk, salt, oil and vegetables are attested. The largest single set of exceptions to the pattern of using bread and wine is that of a “bread-and-water” tradition prominent in early Asian and Syrian Christianity. This tradition, and many of the cases where additional foods are used, involves rejection of meat, and seems to reflect an asceticism based not on concern for the individual body but on maintenance of a dissident community and avoidance of the cuisine of pagan sacrifice.

These dietary concerns are not limited either to liturgical or general eating, but link communal and other meals. The ascetic meal tradition borrows from Judaism, but does not reflect distinctive Jewish concerns so much as earlier patterns of dissident eating found in both Jewish and Gentile cultures. It is also likely to be as early as other forms of eucharistic meal, rather than a late ascetic modification of the better-known eucharist that used wine. The eventually-normative tradition of using bread and wine can better be understood as a more accommodating but still critical response to pagan patterns of eating, and not merely as the repetition of a dominically-instituted memorial.

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